On Court Ceremonial

Cover page of “Theatrum Ceremoniale Historico-Politicum”.

Johann Christian Lünig, Theatrum Ceremoniale Historico-Politicum, Oder Historisch- und Politischer Schau-Platz

Published in 1719/20, Leipzig

You know this feeling: You are a guest. There are many chairs around a table. Which one should you sit on? Every family has its own seating arrangement, but you, being their guest, are not familiar with it. That is the reason why you wait for the host to assign you a seat – at least if you have received a good education.


There are endless situations in our daily life in which we are confronted with unwritten rules, and if we do not know them, we expose ourselves as outsiders. Nowadays, this is not such a bad, let alone dishonourable thing. In the early modern period, it was all of that – at least for noblemen who wanted to demonstrate good behaviour at court.

Louis XIV receives a delegation of the Confederation under the lead of mayor Johann Heinrich Waser in 1663. Painting by Adam Frans van der Meulen.

How, for example, could the mayor of Zurich know how he was supposed to behave when summoned to the court of the most powerful king of those times? Should he shake the king’s hand or kiss his ring? Should he ascend the gallery or wait for the king to come down to him? It was obvious that he had to take off his hat, but how low should he bow before the king?

There was a master of ceremonies to make sure that no one at court would misbehave. He instructed those who attended an official event. In collaboration with the leading politicians, the master of ceremonies developed a precisely coordinated protocol, by means of which insiders could find out about the exact relationship between the different participants and between the participants and the king.

Louis XIV receives the Doge of Genoa in Versailles in 1685.

There were hundreds of tiny nuances, for example with regard to the number of steps of the royal gallery a guest was allowed to ascend at an audience. While we can see on the painting that the Doge of Genoa stands only one step lower than the king, his retinue had to stay at the foot of the stairs.

An expert will also be able to identify the rank of a French noblemen by examining his position to the king. In this case, the heir to the throne sits at the place of honour at the right of Louis XIV. On his left stands his brother and his son on the right. And that is the exact order in which these men had the right to the French throne.

Is your head spinning already? It was the same for the masters of ceremonies. They had to pay attention to so many things! What honour does an ambassador of the Persian Shah expect to be treated with? Is he to be seated closer to the king than the ambassador of the Kingdom of Poland during the banquet? And what happens regarding the service if the Duke of Jülich and Berg appears in person? Does he enter the church before the envoy of the archbishop of Mainz does? These questions were not irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The Nibelungenlied illustrates this by describing a dispute over the position at the head of a procession with all its consequences: Kriemhild and Brünhild cannot agree about who will be the first to enter Worms Cathedral. Their dispute leads to Siegfried being murdered by Hagen, who thus takes revenge for the lost honour of his queen.

And so, we finally get to the book that we want to present you today. Johann Christian Lünig wrote his book to give guidance to those that were repeatedly confronted with the question of what protocol should be followed during an official event at a small or a large princely court of Germany, at the free imperial cities, at abbeys and monasteries.

He was a practitioner: First, he was Amtmann in Eilenburg and therefore responsible for the management of the estates of this provincial town in Saxony. Later he became town clerk in Leipzig, a city of much greater importance. In both of these roles he probably experienced how helpless his fellow contemporaries were regarding the protocol when faced with special situations. Thus, he used the huge amount of material he had gathered by copying documents on his travels through the libraries, archives and offices of the entire German Reich. He published a compilation in which he described how who had done what, when, on which occasion and following what protocol.

With the help of this compilation, anyone seeking guidance was able to find out how certain events took place at the leading courts of Europe. Then, one would choose a precedent for the planned event – a funeral, a baptism, a wedding, a reception of an envoy, whatever. And one could look up what hierarchical order had been used on what occasion. For example, one could treat the envoys at a feast in the order they would enter the hall on the occasion of an Imperial Diet, and one would not incur the risk of making a mistake.

Lünig was not the only one that published such a compilation of precedents. There were numerous books on court ceremonial! And therefore, it became a complex science to always choose the right ceremonial out of the hundred possibilities. A science some princes considered to be rather stupid and a waste of time. The whole courtly frills costed time and money without generating any actual benefit. At least that was the opinion of Frederick William I of Prussia, who is known today as the “Soldier King”. He dismissed his master of ceremonies and invested the money saved by doing so in the expansion of his army.

Of course, that is another possibility: Being so powerful that you can do whatever you want.


If you would like to browse a bit and find out how the court ceremonial was handled in the past, take a look at the first volume of the work published in 1719. The copy of the library of Wolfenbüttel has been digitalised.

On the library’s website, volume 2 and volume 3 can also be accessed.

The abundance of self-help literature on the internet proves that we are still in need of rules that we can follow whenever we are confronted with an unfamiliar situation. Would you like to know how to behave in a sauna? Or how to approach a woman in a bar? Before your next trip to Japan you will certainly look up the things you should never do in this country.

Audiences still take place today, but they look slightly different from those at princely courts in the early modern period. In this YouTube video you can see the audience in which Pope Francis received members of the Italian Red Cross in 2018.

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